BWW Reviews: ORPHAN OF ZHAO at ACT-SF is Intense Powerful Drama
Beginning with small truths and oral tradition, legend eventually turns to the written word. At the heart of this process is Ji Junxiang's ancient play, The Orphan of Zhao, rooted in real events and a resonating theme of loyalty and justice. Currently reworked for American Conservatory Theatre (co-produced with La Jolla Playhouse) after a controversial run at Stratford in 2012, James Fenton's adaptation brings characters full circle, even in the midst of an onslaught of tastefully staged deaths.
The play has been hailed as the Chinese version of Hamlet, following a young orphan's revenge for the massacre of his clan. Fenton's creative liberties leave room for satisfying character resolution. When country doctor Cheng Ying sacrifices his own baby for the life of the orphaned Cheng Bo, Fenton explores the question of justice for this other child. He also brings in the orphan's imprisoned mother so audiences are not left with as much curiosity about what will happen when revenge has met its hunger.
The creative elements of ACT's production flow naturally from the source material's culture without setting a firm location or time. ACT's Carey Perloff directed, recruiting masters like Stephen Buescher and Jonathan Rider to create authentic movement and fight choreography. Costume designer Linda Cho and others took care to avoid exotic perceptions and give the production its own look and feel while remaining true to Chinese history. Byron Au Yong's score alternates between a distinct Chinese sound and a more modern sound, using the Cello, Violin, Drums and more.
The production's life comes in the second act with the arrival of the now 18-year-old Cheng Bo. Daisuke Tsuji jumps around Daniel Ostling's bamboo-structured sets with youthful pride. He soon discovers his country's ailments, however, and Tsuji brings maturity and weight to the orphan's coming of age. Tony Award winner BD Wong leads the ensemble-driven show as Cheng Bo's adopted father, the country doctor who saved his life. Wong embodies Cheng Ying's humble origins, his great moral dilemma and his frail temperament. Stan Egi also provides a strong, motivated and formidable villain in Tu'an Gu.
While the nature of the play dictates that the actors speak with directness (and less emotion, as some may interpret), audience members intrigued by the drama and history of The Orphan of Zhao and other classics by Shakespeare and Sophocles will find ACT's production fascinating and immaculate. The play teems with tension and power.
THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO
American Conservatory Theatre
Through June 29
Photo by Kevin Berne